BooKs on MondaY: Drs. Anne Cunningham and Jamie Zubilsky on their new book BOOK SMART!

By Leslie Lindsay 

I am in absolute awe of this amazing book on reading with your children, aptly titled, BOOK SMART: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers.

Think back to your own childhood: do you have a special memory with a caregiver and a book? Perhaps you curled up into a grandparent’s lap with a dog-eared copy of nursery rhymes. Maybe you escaped into a popular series as a grade-schooler. Do you recall *your* favorite childhood book?

BOOK SMART will touch on nostalgia while presenting a fabulous array of research in parent-friendly terms, while offering ideas for increasing the love of literature at home, being tech-savvy, and so much more. I am honored to have Drs. Anne Cunningham and Jamie Zibulsky with us to tell us more.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome and thank you for being with us today, Anne and Jamie! I understand you two are passionate readers, have been for most of your lives. I really resonated with Jamie’s story earlier about how she and her father would cozy up with a book—and Anne’s family thrived on a print-rich environment with a bevy of magazines, books, and newspapers at her disposal. What is it about reading as a child that develops passionate, life-long readers? 

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  That’s a great question, and one that I can’t help but answer in multiple ways.  From a research perspective, there are studies that have shown that factors like a caregiver’s motivation to read or their knowledge of children’s books is a good predictor of a child’s future reading success.  It makes sense that this is the case because we know that children imitate behaviors they see important people in their lives engaging in, and then eventually internalize the values associated with those behaviors.

I think it’s also important to answer this question from a more personal perspective too, to give an example of what these findings mean for any one child.  When I was a kid, I remember how wonderful it felt to get time alone with one of my parents and how grown-up it felt to pick out a book to share with them.  Getting a chance to bond with my parents, who both were readers themselves, was one of the initial reasons that I became an enthusiastic reader. However, even though being able to spend time with adults I loved and getting attention for liking books helped me get started on the path to becoming a lifelong reader, these extrinsic rewards eventually became less important than reading for its own sake.  I remember how much I loved hearing about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and trying to picture what I would have done if I lived during that time period – her books gave me a chance to learn about a time and place that was new to me, but also normalized some of the feelings and experiences I had growing up (by sharing stories about sibling rivalry, for example).

To recap, what we know is that having good reading experiences with a caregiver early on in life makes it more likely that a child will both develop strong skills and also develop enthusiasm for reading.  This sets up a feedback loop where kids with better reading skills, more motivation to read, or who spend more time reading end up likely to have all three of these attributes as they get older.

L.L.: I love how BOOK SMART has so many wonderful graphics—charts, especially—busy caregivers can quickly glance, find a literacy activity, and implement it. Can you expand on this feature of the book?

DSC_1356-3178062101-ODr. Jamie Zibulsky:  We’re so glad that the graphics seemed helpful to you!  We added this feature for just the reason you mention – we know thatcaregivers of young children are busy and wanted to craft a book that could be useful to a mom who was trying to strengthen shared reading time at home while also working, planning meals for a family of five, or juggling any of the other challenges that come along with parenting. We wanted to make sure that the strategies we talk about in Book Smart were easy to use and that someone could read a chapter and immediately have an idea of how to put the ideas they read about into practice.  So, each chapter ends with a list of activities appropriate for kids of a variety of ages that are described briefly.  Our hope is that it is the kind of list that motivates caregivers to try a new literacy activity out in the car or during a meal the day after they read about it, because one of the key ideas that we are trying to convey throughout the book is that very simple activities can lead to powerful changes for kids.

L.L.: Let’s talk about technology a bit. There’s plenty of opportunity to *not* read books, sadly. How can caregivers and children still work in the iPad/tablet, Kindle, and other electronic devices, but gain valuable book skills?

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  
You’re right; there are so many other activities that compete with reading time these days.  And it becomes harder and harder to limit young children’s exposure to technology as families begin to own multiple smart phones and tablets.  The rule of thumb we suggest that hopefully makes sense to most families, regardless of what their philosophy is on technology, is that tech tools should *supplement* rather than *replace* reading time.  What that means to me is that technology can’t substitute for a caregiverkids need that time sitting with someone, getting cuddles and talking about the pictures in a book together, in order to become a successful, motivated reader.  But if there is a time of day when it would be difficult for a caregiver to read with a child or a time when a child already protests about reading independently, that might be a time of day when it’s appropriate for that child to play a rhyming game online or read a magazine on the Kindle.  Many kids do find reading online or downloading a new app exciting, so harnessing that enthusiasm is a way that we can help encourage reading during times when a child might have previously been using technology for a different purpose.

L.L.: One thing I really liked in the book is the idea of specific praise versus this idea of ‘blanketed praise.’ That is, not telling your child she is smart (even if she is), but instead offering specific phrase, “Great job thinking of another word for cold.” Why is this so important?

Dr. Anne Cunningham:  When global praise is used, and children are told in general terms that they are wonderful, or smart, or a good reader it sets them up for disappointment because no one is always smart in every situation or a good reader for all kinds of text.  That means at some point, even very skilled children will think something like, “Hey, Mom said I was a great reader, but I had so much trouble understanding the story today.  I guess I’m not a good reader anymore now that I’m in fourth grade.”  However, when a parent or caretaker uses specific praise such as ‘’Even though that story was difficult to understand, you kept at it and asked questions about the plot,” to praise the persistence and specific problem solving skills that their child displayed, their child is better prepared to tackle difficult or novel problems or issues in the future.  We want to give kids praise that they can apply to future situations, which generally means focusing on their effort rather than their ability.

L.L.: We often find books that touch on a problem or a worry we’re experiencing at home. Can you give us some examples of how books help act out social situations and challenges, and what caregivers might do to enhance this aspect of shared literacy?DSC_1349-3178060593-O

Dr. Anne Cunningham:   As we describe in the book, there are many benefits of reading, most importantly perhaps, is that reading helps a child relate to their surrounding world and encourages empathy and interpersonal skills.So often we tend to think of reading as primarily an activity meant to enhance children’s academic skills.  And we tend to forget that reading is built on a shared understanding of the world and can help our children build background knowledge and discuss their own life experiences with their caretakers. Shared reading can provide models for coping with difficult situations, opportunities for understanding the lives of people who are very different from us, and serve as a source of comfort.  For example, when my son was young, we often read stories about adventure and fantasy.  But we also read stories about children who experienced teasing or bullying in school.  These stories demonstrated to him that other children have similar feelings when confronted with comparable circumstances and gave me a way to introduce this topic to him without having to directly bring up his own experiences first. My son also learned that he was not the only one who experienced such trying dilemmas, but other children encountered them as well. Through stories, caregivers can help their children identify and validate their feelings, stimulate discussion and foster thought and self-awareness about challenging social situations and help them discover possible coping skills and solutions.

L.L.: Can you offer some suggestions on how parents and caregivers may help increase print awareness at home?  

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Parents and caregivers can help increase print awareness at home by creating an environment, both physical and verbal, that emphasizes words and language. At a physical level, having books and other print material around the house facilitates access to print.  Additionally, by labeling common objects (for example, door, table, etc.) children begin to see words all around them and to make the association implicitly that print carries meaning.  At a verbal level, parents and caregivers can “flood” their children with language, for example by describing situations in detail such as how they are going to make a sandwich and all the steps and ingredients involved.  These verbal labels and steps can then be paired with their physical representation such as the “Smucker’s raspberry jam” label.  Parents and caregivers can help increase print awareness by building upon their child’s interests in a topic.  Stocking books that match their child’s own interests will spark their enthusiasm for reading and increase print awareness.

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  It’s so funny that you asked this question now, because I have been thinking about this topic a lot in the past few weeks.  My son, who is fourteen months old, just recognized – for the first time – that his name is written out both on a step-stool in our house and in letter magnets on the refrigerator.  When he ran back and forth between the two versions of his name and pointed at the letters, I basically jumped up and down with joy, because it demonstrated how powerful it can be to do just what Anne is describing above.  I’ll be giving some more specific strategies for increasing print awareness in very young children in a blog post at PsychologyToday this week.

L.L.: Finally, what might be your ultimate wish for children and their success with literacy?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: I can imagine no better wish for children than for them to experience and know the joy of the nighttime ritual my mother taught me many years ago and I have passed down to my son—to tuck myself into bed with a book and, from the comfort of my own home, explore new worlds with new friends who nurture and expand my mind and spirit.

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  I agree with Anne wholeheartedly, and wish for all children to have this opportunity and experience.  We know that there are so many aspects of reading success that require caregivers and teachers to provide support to young children and that environment matters so much.  I hope that we continue to invest in ways to make reading possible for all families and communities.

L.L.: Thank you so much for spreading the word with us, Jamie and Anne!  It was a pleasure.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank YOU!

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky: Thanks for having us.

AECunningham-1Anne E. Cunningham, PhD (left) is Professor of Cognition and Development at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education.Follow on TwitterJamie Zibulsky

Jamie Zibulsky, PhD (right) is Associate Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.Follow on Twitter

Check out the BOOK SMART website here.

[Special thanks to Oxford University Press. Author images, cover image, and book trailer courtsey of C. McCarroll at OUP. Image of girl reading from L.Lindsay personal archives] 


BOOKS ON MONDAY: Dr. Stephen Camarata on his new book, THE INTUITIVE PARENT

By Leslie Lindsay

Parents these days are inundated with a host of “Brainy Baby” products from DVDs to flashcards, educational toys, and so much more. Do they really work? Dr. Stephen Camarata debunks many of the myths of these so-called IntuitiveParent_comps.inddbrainy products, and shares that what these babies really need above and all is their parents. Engaged, supportive, and tuned-in parents.

THE INTUITIVE PARENT (Penguin/Current, 2015) is a must-read for any new parent just starting out who desires to raise life-long learners. Dr. Camarata, a Vanderbilt University Professor and “veteran” parent himself, (having raised seven children; now grandfather to three), he holds an advanced degree in developmental psychology and has done much of his clinical work in late-talking children.

I’m honored to welcome Dr. Camarata to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: You take on the marketing frenzy of “Brainy Baby” type products in THE INTUITIVE PARENT, suggesting that all of these DVDs, products, and flashcards don’t really work—how can they, they’re just 2-dimensional products after all—instead, you recommend getting back to basics: smiling, talking, and playing with your child(ren). Can you expand on that, please?

Dr. Camarata: A baby comes to the world predisposed for learning. Her developing brain is quite literally like a sponge and babies are naturally curious. Computer apps, DVDs and flashcards suppress these traits because the baby becomes a passive learner—essentially a “binge watcher.” In contrast, parent-baby interaction, including smiling, talking and playing engages a baby’s interest, attention—and motivation for learning while activating multiple brain regions. These activities also strengthen the emotional bonds between baby and her parents. Computer apps, DVDs and flashcards actually disconnect a baby from her parents while connecting her to the “screen.”

L.L.: Life is busy. Many households have two working parents, a whole host of other commitments, and outside pressures. How might we ‘slow down and smell the flowers’ when it comes to raising kids? Will popping in a DVD or allowing our 2-year old play with the tablet/iPad really be detrimental?

Dr. Camarata: Life is indeed quite busy and a baby makes it even more wonderfully full for families! The point of “The intuitive parent” is to empower parents to make positive choices—in tune with their inner parenting voice—to nurture their children. Sadly, there is an ongoing myth in today’s society that computer apps, DVDs and flashcards are better than human parents for “wiring a child’s brain.” In truth, parents are far better than any screen activity for activating neural plasticity and raising a confident, smart, well-adjusted child. When given a choice between talking to and playing with a child, pounding flashcards or plugging in an “educational DVD,” playing and talking win hands down in terms of what is best for your child—and their developing brain. Even if you only have a few precious moments while trying to juggle the demands of a busy schedule, play and talk with your baby whenever you can.

Although it is clear that screen time is in no way superior to mommy time or daddy time for a baby’s developing brain, including a screen as one would a book or letting a child enjoy a favorite show on DVD while parent’s are otherwise busy is not harmful. It is normal and natural for children to spend some time on their own and parents should make an active choice regarding what their child watches. This should be a limited amount of time and NOT the primary source of knowledge for a child.

L.L.: I still prefer paper books and email to texting. But this is a technology-driven society we live in. Where does technology and your model of intuitive parenting meld?

Dr. Camarata: Technology is indeed an integral part of our society and can readily incorporated into intuitive parenting activities. As you mention, one can read a physical book or an ebook: Parents can cuddle with their child and read an ebook exactly in the same way they would a regular “old school” book. The key is to integrate the technology, ebooks, DVDs and computers into INTERACTIVE episodes. Rather than turning a child’s brain over to technology, parents should be playing and talking while using the technology. Watch a DVD together, pause the video from time to time and ask questions. What do you think will happen next? What did they find? How do they feel? And so on. No one expects a book, by itself, to teach a child how to read, it is a learning tool. Technology should be treated the same way.


L.L.: I have to say, I really do love the suggestions in THE INTUITIVE PARENT, which I think we can boil down to this: be present, let the child(ren) take the lead when it comes to her play and interests, and be playful yourself. How is this different than free-range parenting?

Dr. Camarata: Free range parenting is a laissez faire style that essentially leaves the fate of your child in the hands of a cold hearted Darwinian “survival of the fittest” outside world. Parents are encouraged to disengage from their child, give them space and let them learn on their own. To be sure, I am exhorting parents to let their child lead in terms of choosing activities, trying and failing and trying again rather than being led through development. But, rather than distancing themselves from their child, intuitive parenting actually means interacting more, responding more, and spending time with your child. A free range parent might turn their child loose on the New York subway system without supervision. An intuitive parent would go with their child, but allow her to buy the tokens, select the train and destination and so on. The intuitive parent would also let a child make mistakes (for example, get on the wrong train) without scolding or being judgmental while allowing her to learn form her mistakes. An intuitive parent is also in a position to debrief their child after the trip and also ask questions about how their child arrived at the decisions (right or wrong) they made during the trip. Perhaps more importantly, intuitive parenting conveys the benefits of free range parenting without the risk.

87c76-410_1target_group_kids_apparel_photography_los_angeles_mike_henryL.L.: I have to ask about late-talking kids. Being a mother of an older daughter with childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), this is something I struggle with even now that she’s 10 years old and considered “resolved.” I think it’s the guilt that seeps in—“I caused it, I didn’t talk to her enough as a baby, didn’t get the help she needed,” etc. Of course, now I know this is not the case, but when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t know what else to believe. What advice might you give to parents who are struggling with speech and language concerns in their older infants/toddlers?

Dr. Camarata: First, let me say that I am delighted that things turned out well for your daughter! Parents often do have guilt about their late talking child and some professionals mistakenly add to this guilt. The truth is that parents do not cause late talking. Sadly, some well meaning—but misinformed—professionals, friends or even family members may say things like “you should have talked more to her when she was a baby!” or “you should have gotten help sooner!” These comments can be hurtful and actually are not accurate. Parents talk a lot to their babies and young children, some more than others, but always more than enough to help their child learn to talk. Lack of input is definitely not the cause of late talking! With regard to early intervention, it can certainly be beneficial. But the wrong kind of treatment may not be helpful and, in some cases, can be harmful. For example, treatment for autism may not be effective for other forms of late talking. Treatment for apraxia won’t help autism or other language disorders and so on.

My advice to parents of late talking children is have a medical evaluation from the pediatrician or family physician and then to seek an accurate differential diagnosis to determine whether their child is likely to simply “grow out” of the late talking or whether it is a speech disorder such as apraxia, a language disorder, autism, intellectual disability or some other condition associated with late talking that requires treatment. Do not go to a clinic or a professional that applies a “one size fits all” label such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and then funnel their child to a one size fits all treatment. Be forewarned that there are many “snake oil” treatments out there that take advantage of parents’ anxiety and guilt. Finally, no matter what, do not forget to play, interact and enjoy your late talking child. No matter what, do not let guilt and anxiety crowd out those precious parent-child moments.

L.L.: How can we learn from our kids?

Dr. Camarata: There is some much we can learn. I find it especially interesting to learn about what they are thinking and why. When my second daughter was four, she noticed that my hair was thinning. She asked me whether this was because I was thinking so much that the heat from my brain was causing the hair to die and fall out. What an intriguing idea! Intuitive parents tune in to their child, and learn about of their own unique personality. Are they easy going or more intense? Do they like puzzles and numbers or stories and imaginary friends and creatures? It is so much fun to discover your child’s way of seeing the world.

But perhaps the most important lessons our children teach us is to enjoy the moment. Child are quite resilient and become deeply engaged in their play—and in their imagination. As a parent, being with my children—and now grandchildren—literally melts away the worries of the outside world as I leave them behind and join children in a world of wonder and delight.

L.L.: Thank so much for taking the time to chat with us, Dr. Camarata! It was a pleasure.

Dr. Camarata: Thanks so much for your thoughtful questions and your interest in the book!

Camarata author photoBio: Stephen Camarata, PhD, is a professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences and a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is a children’s speech expert and the author of THE INTUITIVE PARENT: Why the Best Thing For Your Child Is You.

[Special thanks to T. Fleming at Penguin/Random House for making this interview possible. Cover and author image used courtesy of author’s publicist] 

BOOKS ON MONDAY: Dr. Dana Suskind Talks about her new book and reading initiative, THIRTY MILLION WORDS

By Leslie Lindsay 30-million-cover-hi-rez

As a mother and someone who is very interested in childhood speech and language, Dr. Suskind’s book THIRTY MILLION WORDS (Dutton, September 8) is right up my alley. Not to mention that I currently live in Chicagoland (where she practices/teaches at the University of Chicago) –and we both seem to have ties to St. Louis. I should be clear though: we do not know each other, professionally or personally; our connection is merely serendipitous.

Her initiative, THIRTY MILLION WORDS is important–yet astoundingly simple–talk with your child. Today, I am honored and humbled to have Dr. Suskind with us. 

Leslie Lindsay: I’m always so interested in what sparks a writer to delve into her chosen topic. I understand you are a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon. What instigated your shift to the social and educational sciences?

Dr. Dana Suskind: As a cochlear implant surgeon, I soon discovered that a successful cochlear implant did not always ensure a child’s success in learning to speak or understand language. My search to understand why led me to encounter the concept of the 30 million-word gap. Research has shown that by their fourth birthday, children of lower socioeconomic status have heard about 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This profound disparity has a negative impact on everything from literacy to school readiness to academic achievement

As I mention in my book, taking the Hippocratic Oath meant that my obligation to my patients doesn’t end when I finish operating; it ends when my patients are well. I knew that it was time for me to step out of the comfort of the operating room into the wider world of social science in order to truly affect a change for our nation’s children. This book describes that transition and its result: the Thirty Million Words Initiative. What advice would you give to parents who are raising a child with hearing loss, whether it be mild, moderate, or severe?

Dr. Dana Suskind: It’s important to know that the brain development of a child who has moderate to severe hearing loss is the same as that of typically developing children. A rich early language environment makes all the difference.

L.L.: Let’s talk about the title of the book. Someone in a waiting room recently noticed the cover/title while I was reading, “So how long does it take to read thirty million words,” he asked.

Of course, I had to describe what that term really meant: a University of Kansas study showed that by age 4, kids from wealthy families had heard 30 million more words than low-income families. That’s HUGE! Can you talk about that, please? It’s not 30 million different words, but something else?

Dr. Dana Suskind: 30 million words is a metaphor for differences in early language environments. Parent responsiveness and the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions are what really matter – greater variation in vocabulary, more syntactic complexity, asking open-ended questions, eliciting a child’s response. 

L.L.: I love your stance on television, by the way. So many kids (and parents!) feel as if TV actually teaches, when in fact, it does not. A television does not tune in (views tend to “zone out,”), it does not talk more, and it does not take turns. These are your 3T’s. Can you tell us more about what the 3T’s really mean?

Dr. Dana Suskind: Sure. The first 3T, Tune In, is about making a conscious effort to notice, focus, and respond to what your child is communicating. A child who receives constant Tuning In is likely to stay engaged longer, initiate communication, and ultimately, learn more easily. Talk More is focused on building your child’s vocabulary with descriptive words. Take Turns is the most valuable for a child’s developing brain. You want to engage your child in a conversational exchange. Using open-ended questions or asking a simple ‘how’ or ‘why’ allows your child to respond with a wide range of words, thoughts, and ideas.3t-logo

L.L.: If you had one wish for parents and children regarding academic and social success, what would it be?

Dr. Dana Suskind: Educational equity. And, that all parents truly understand how powerful they are in building a child’s brain. We believe all families and communities deserve access to this life-changing information. That is the overarching goal of TMW and the purpose of this book.

L.L.: What more can parents (and educators) do? 

Dr. Dana Suskind:  They can understand that learning begins on the first day of life and not the first day of school. And everyone can help spread this important message to more parents, educators, and policy makers.

L.L.: Thank you so very much for taking the time to be with us today, Dr. Suskind…it was much enlightening.

Dr. Dana Suskind: Thank you so much for this opportunity to spread the words!

For more information, or to connect:

Dana_Suskind HeadshotDana Suskind, author of the book, Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain, (Dutton, September 2015), is Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago, Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and Founder and Director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative.  Based on scientific research that shows the critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child, Thirty Million Words helps parents enhance their home language environment in order to optimize their child’s brain development and, therefore, his or her ability to learn.  An evidence-based intervention, Thirty Million Words is supported by a broad coalition of public and private partnerships and is an extension of Dr. Suskind’s Project ASPIRE, which she created to assure that her patients from disadvantaged backgrounds reached their full listening and spoken language potentials.  Dr. Suskind’s ultimate goal, and that of her dedicated team, is to help all children reach their full potentials and to close the ever-widening achievement gap.

[All images retrieved from the TMW website on 9.11.15. Special thanks to the author and publicists for the review copy and coordinating efforts].